Between Two Worlds: When Desire Lingers After a Breakup
Published in P.S. I Love You, Medium, July 14, 2020
He was married. But I was still in limbo.
It was 10 p.m. when I finished teaching my class in downtown LA. I paused briefly at the school’s front door that locked after me. My car appeared to be the only one remaining in the lot.
I started across the street, the ragged edge of the car key pressing in my hand.
My heels clicked on the unlit pavement.
Within seconds, another set of footsteps sounded behind me.
I looked back to see a man trailing me. I broke into a run, made it to my car, unlocked it and got in. But the man managed to lodge his arm in the door. The tip of his cigarette glowed to within a half inch of my eye.
Trembling, I turned the key in the ignition while I shoved the door against him. He stumbled backward. I slammed down on the gas pedal.
“Oh God, sweet Jesus.”
My hands gripping the steering wheel, I asked myself, “Why am I still here?”
I’d come to LA from Arizona for my boyfriend five years before. I met him at Arizona State University, where we had both been in the master’s degree program for English. There, we shared a teacher-training class for our entry-level classes. I remember the first time I spotted him. He was by far the best-looking man I’d ever seen — tall, with a cleft in his chin that was strictly overkill.
When I gave my oral presentation on classical rhetoric, repeating Woody Allen’s humorous syllogism about all men being Socrates, his was the loudest laugh in the room.
“You were great,” he told me afterward, pushing a shock of hair out of his blue eyes.
Soon after, he approached me in my office. “Torture yourself. Go out with me.”
I had had serious boyfriends — but he was different. We shared a love of words and music and trivia. His kisses were like something out of a romance novel covered with clinch art. It would have been a struggle not to fall for him.
True, I was troubled by the fact he was eight years younger than I, but his silly humor won me over. He once rented a mustache from a costume shop to appear older when he was looking for an apartment. And he had aspirations of becoming a rock star. Often, he’d play his guitar for me while I harmonized to his melodies, tricky ones that challenged me. I didn’t see myself as the cliché some of those looking in did. Besides, love is loud and drowns out other voices.
I believed, in spite of our age difference and his double dose of good looks, that he saw something special in me, too, whether it be my intelligence or wit or maybe a bit of both.
Loving him did bring forth a true dilemma, one much more insistent than the age difference: I could have stayed in Arizona and worked toward my doctorate, but he asked me to move to LA to support his dreams of being a rock star. Eventually, I did, moving in with two friends in an apartment in Culver City. I even got a job at a record company to give him an “in.”
He was out. And, we were over. Just like that.
Now I had two jobs — the record company during the day and teaching English at night — so I would be around in case he changed his mind. But I knew that would probably never happen. I just couldn’t bear to move that thought to the logical part of my brain.
As I drove home that night, I thought how I’d gotten away from the assailant this time, but might it happen again? I hadn’t been consumed with such questions when I was with my ex. He would have stepped in. Once, after a concert in Long Beach, he had taken a wrong turn and ended up in a bad part of town.
“Keep the door locked, honey,” he had said. “I’ll get us out of here.”
Now, all I had was the past to review, to sift through, in an effort to divine my future. On one of our last dates — to an LA Dodgers game — we walked onto the field afterward. “Someday, I’ll bring my son here,” he had said. His son, not our son. Maybe I was never in for the long run. Shortly after that, he drifted away, then after a while, just quit calling. I remember the old wives’ tale that when cats know it’s their time, they go away to die. But there I was, still yelling “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty” long after he’d gone.
When his absence was still fresh, I remember scanning hundreds of personal ads in the LA Weekly, thinking he was eager to begin his life with someone different. My instincts were right. In the ad, he said something about being better looking than Evan Dando of The Lemonheads. That was him.
Once, my shrink called to tell me he forgot his office key and would have to wait for his assistant to arrive at 9 a.m. to get in. He suggested we meet in a Beverly Hills park close to his office instead.
He was dressed in a bespoke olive-green, double-breasted suit. I sat on the park swing while he held onto one of the swing-set’s pipes. I once asked him if he had celebrities as clients, and he had said yes, without offering any names.
I told him about my new reality, my lunch hours spent red-penning lines in psychology textbooks in a desperate attempt to understand the man I still loved and our recent dissolution.
I told him about the time my ex took me to a fancy Sunday brunch with his family. I watched as his mother danced languidly with him to “Mood Indigo,” her long bare arms draped over his shoulders.
“Maybe she was his first and only love. Maybe I never had a chance.”
“I don’t want to hear about him,” my shrink said. “Let’s talk about you moving on.”
“But if I feel I can understand him better, I’ll be able to get over him, or at least understand what I did wrong.”
“Why does it have to be your fault?”
Out of nowhere, my ex phoned late one night, a week or so before Christmas, and asked to come over to my apartment. It had been months since I’d heard from him.
“I won’t stay long,” he told me.
It was good to hear his voice. After all, we’d once shared everything: midnight breakfasts and fireworks on the ocean, as well as mutual consolation for trying to make it in a tough city.
We’d made each other laugh and cry, both scenarios ending with his long arms around me. In my apartment, however, he kept his hands in his pockets, sitting on a chair opposite from mine, first looking at me, then looking away. He seemed to want to tell me something.
Instead, I filled the emptiness with small talk. I wish I hadn’t. Perhaps he would have told me what he came to tell me.
He left, but I received a generic Christmas card from him shortly thereafter in which he wrote, “I will always love you, just like the song says.”
I wondered if that meant there was hope because of the word “love.” What did those lyrics really mean?
As a result, I was more or less in a suspended reality over Christmas, refusing to believe we were over, yet trying not to think too much about what he had written on the card. I knew that Dolly Parton had written those lyrics when she was trying to extricate herself personally and professionally from a man and all that had kept her obligated to him. It was a let-‘em-down-easy song. But it had the word “love” in the title. My ex already lived apart from me. I’d given him plenty of space of late — or had it been the other way around?
I heard from him again after the holidays. He called me at work and asked if it was all right if he stopped by that evening. I didn’t feel good about seeing him. I knew this time he’d tell me what he had meant to tell me the time before.
When he came to the door, I knew I still loved him, no matter what. He was beautiful: the shock of hair falling over eyes the changing color of the sea, the deep cleft in his chin. It felt so odd not to be able to embrace him like so many of the times he’d appeared at this door when we were together.
“Would you like to go to a poetry reading in Westwood?” he asked, standing awkwardly in the entryway.
“After all these months of not hearing from you. Why now?”
He looked down at his hand; I followed his gaze. A gold band encircled his left ring finger.
“Yes. But there’s no reason not to be friends.”
I felt sick. It was all a physical reaction. The body reacts first in my case. I looked into his eyes. “And your wife? How does she figure in this — friendship.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Do I know her?”
It was then that he told me he had gotten married over Christmas to someone I had never met, a woman who must have owned the older Mercedes that was often parked in his driveway. The fact it was a Mercedes — older model or not — told me a lot. Maybe that he’d been looking for security. That he was tired of trying to make it in a city that didn’t see him as distinctive. That I was played out.
What of his dreams and plans? I had been his sounding board for so long. I looked at his hand again, with the ring winding around his finger, a gold snake. I was used to his unadorned hands that I’d clasped hundreds of times. If he wanted to give LA a second chance, he’d be discussing all that with this woman, his wife.
Or maybe not.
I thought of a scene in the movie “The Way We Were” between Barbra’s Streisand’s and Robert Redford’s characters, how she urged him to go to Paris and write another novel because he was so good at it. His response had been, “You push too hard. Every damn minute.” Had that been me? In contrast, was this new woman going to let him kick back and do nothing while she took care of him in style? Perhaps he got tired of trying, of having to live so leanly. It was hard for someone so beautiful to have to work hard when he remembered a time when things came much easier.
And now he was standing before me, asking me to go to a poetry reading. I couldn’t get him to go anywhere with me for the past year, not even to see me alone. Was seeing me only conditioned on the fact that there be a barrier between us, in this case, marriage?
He was married. But I was still in limbo. After the poetry slam, he’d run back to his bride, to his new life with her. He would hold her in his arms and fall asleep with his head resting on her shoulder. I, on the other hand, would still be alone and between two worlds. I already knew how living in one of those worlds was like, the uncertainty, the longing, the waiting for calls that might come. But he would only be a friend now. He came with conditions.
I felt betrayed, even though he had a right to make his choices. It was how he handled it with me. “The way they leave tells you everything,” Rupi Kaur had written. I deserved better. I couldn’t live that way anymore.
“Go home to your wife,” I told him, averting my eyes. “You chose her, not me. Go home.”
After several failed attempts to reach me by phone in the weeks that followed, he ultimately wrote me a letter in which he encouraged me to keep up the good fight since he’d abandoned both the fight and LA, having moved with his missus to a different state. I corrected his punctuation and grammar in red ink. “Don’t ever contact me again,” I signed off at the end of it before slipping it in the mailbox. I felt more empty than victorious. I had shut off the source, but I still loved him. Where does that love go? That desire? Like the soul, is it indestructible even as the heart stops?
Over the next few weeks, I thought a lot about our relationship, one that could have entered a different phase had I agreed to it. I remembered his words to me in that last encounter — “There’s no reason not to be friends.” Perhaps I had been too dismissive. Perhaps we could have stayed connected at some level. I could have still had him in my life.
Maybe my instincts were right — we wouldn’t have been good friends, or anything else. Maybe ours was meant to be only part of a lost moment in time instead of a friendship over time.
I was at a crossroads. For too long, my life in Los Angeles had been filled with our residual hauntings. Besides the Googie-style restaurants and old movie theaters, there were bridges, and long stretches of highway, and the spot in front of his house where our conversations played over and over, relentlessly stuck. Like confined spirits, these memories needed to be released, allowed to dissipate or at least shift into a new phase. Should I contact him? Agree to be friends?
But I kept coming back to one stubborn fact: He was married. That had changed everything, that band around his finger that screamed the fact he had pledged to be her husband in sickness and in health until death one day parts them. Who’s to say he would have decided against any contact with me after a time, even as friends, then what? I’d feel the hurt, the pain all over again, even relegated to a lesser status. The British had a word for twilight, the time between dusk and nighttime: dimpsy. I felt I had been locked in dimpsy, neither in the daylight nor in the darkness.
I had made the right choice.
Now, I just had to deal with whether I should stay in Los Angeles and figure out where I was headed, without him, of course. Maybe the shrink was right. Maybe none of this was my fault.
Five months later, I stayed at a Malibu motel for my birthday. My room had a balcony that looked onto the ocean. I lay on a chaise lounge and watched the sun melt into the horizon.
As the hours passed, I thought about how I’d spent the last year more or less suspended until I’d decided otherwise.
Even though I still thought of my ex, I went out with other guys because now I knew he wasn’t coming back. One guy I dated told me life meted out only a limited number of purely happy moments. Said he was glad he got to spend some of them with me. Were happy moments really like coins in one’s pocket to spend with others? Had my ex simply gone through all the happiness coins he could with me and was now spending the rest of them with his wife? It didn’t matter. I had my own pocket change to spend.
I had stayed on the balcony throughout the night, watching the sky come in with my birthday. By now the dawn had scrubbed away the darkness. Joggers and surfers were already gathering, this being their time of day before the tourists took over.
I thought of my resilient students and how they showed up night after night going through those endless language drills, often laughing at their mistakes.
Like them, I was in a new world. I was taking steps, albeit small ones, away from the past and forward to an unknown future. Maybe the British had a word for that, too.
I closed my eyes. It was early morning, yet the dependable California sun was already making its way across the sky.